As we grow up, we consume increasing amounts and more varied types of mass media and entertainment, including television, radio, music, Internet, newspapers and magazines. Some of what we consume is explicitly political, such as editorials and commentary. But even the material that is not explicitly political or self-consciously apolitical (the latter claim, of course, is made my most news outlets) can contain subtle choices of words and images that may suggest either a particular political agenda (for instance, one person's "guerrilla" may be another person's "freedom fighter") or more generalized reinforcement of the dominant culture (such as the emphasis on constitution-making and elections in news coverage of Iraq, for instance).
Perhaps the influences of popular culture on the formation of political culture in our young people are overblown, given that America's youth tends to be very media-savvy and quite skeptical in ways previous generations weren't. Nevertheless, members of the public, organized interests, and the government have made repeated attempts to regulate or otherwise condemn certain kinds of content, especially entertainment that features violence, sexism, and anti-establishment themes. Their concern is that such images and language can erode the values that hold our society together - values like citizenship, civility, participation, respect for the law and authority, hard work, etc.
The struggles over the content of both news coverage and popular entertainment will likely continue indefinitely because of the media's massive presence in our daily lives. Psychologists and marketers alike, however, generally believe that as we age we become less malleable in our belief systems and worldviews. That is, we become more rigid, set in our ways. This is one of the reasons why marketers pursue teenagers and twenty-somethings so aggressively: they want to build brand loyalty before our tastes, preferences and perceptions ossify. These psychological tendencies also feed the impulse to regulate programming and advertising aimed at children more stringently than content explicitly produced for adults.
While political actors often struggle over regulating the content of popular culture, popular culture in turn offers a broad range of opportunities for shaping the ongoing development of politics and the political culture. Popular entertainment may play second fiddle to the influence of family and school, but the entertainment media constantly engage the political debates of the day and provoke political discourse.
Popular culture may embrace or defy conventional thinking about politics and issues. But, whether particular instances of popular culture resonate with mainstream messages or strike discordant notes, almost by definition they register historical changes in society. After all, an instance of popular culture - be it a particular movie, a song, a TV show or a video game - that doesn't appeal to some segment of the consuming public usually fails to achieve commercial success and disappears from the media landscape. Conversely, instances of popular culture with relevant political implications or resonance often register historical changes in society and the body politic. Popularity and currency are often linked.
That commercial success reflects popular resonance is illustrated in the comments of University of Texas at Austin anthropologist Richard Flores about the evolution of the portrayal of the Battle of the Alamo - from emphasizing negative stereotypes of Mexicans to emphasizing Cold War messages of freedom. Indeed, war movies in general provide some of the the most pointed reflections of political mood. A quick reflection of the succession of movies since the 1960s on war - including The Green Berets (1968), The Deer Hunter (1978), Top Gun (1986), and Three Kings (1999) - illustrates this facet of popular culture.
So while political actors and the producers of popular culture often consciously seek to promote particular messages, values, and viewpoints, their control is ultimately limited by the evolving tastes, preferences and viewpoints of the mass public.